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What are the major product management trends heading into 2018?

by Nis Frome
February 26, 2018

Every year, we survey 150+ digital product managers to benchmark and highlight their activities, preferences, and perceptions. It’s been an honor to watch the industry blossom and see the role emerge as one of the hottest in business. Today, there are more conferences, resources, and tools than ever to support product management.

If you’re interested in really leveling up, you can read the full 16-page report here and listen to my interview with The Everyday Innovator. Or check out my brief analysis of the report with three key trends below:

Functional experience matters

I’ve seen a lot of product management-type courses pop up in undergraduate and graduate degree programs, but students shouldn’t get ahead of themselves too quickly. Only 11% of our respondents began their careers in product management, and that’s not a number that seems to be rising according to our data.

Employers are really prioritizing and valuing candidates with diverse experiences. Contrary to popular belief, engineering wasn’t our respondents’ most common background. Business analyst is now the most common, with engineering being second. Beyond that, common past roles are marketing and customer-facing roles like sales and customer success. Empathy and quantitative skills have proven to be as valuable as engineering know-how for a lot of product management roles. However, I suspect some roles, especially at B2B SaaS providers, will always require a deeper technical understanding.

There’s a disconnect between aspirational product management and actual product management

I think there’s a lot of context missing out there in some of the premier product management articles being written. So much of what’s out there is overly aspirational and unrealistic in terms of what product management should be, and not helpful for those doing what product management actually is. That’s why our annual report is always so grounding.

From a high-level perspective, we haven’t seen a lot change in terms of responsibilities. The vast majority of digital product managers set product roadmaps and write user stories. Qualitatively though, product managers today use a lot more tools and talk to more customers than ever before. We’ve seen a major shift from doing manual and tedious tasks like setting up focus groups, to digitally powered moderated and unmoderated user interviews. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that a lot of product managers are still doing things they’re not necessarily trained or qualified to do, like managing development teams and designing interactive prototyping. Also, in terms of day-to-day activities, product managers dedicate an overwhelming amount of time to business case building, storytelling, advocating, meeting, and prioritization. They spend more time than they’d like interacting with internal folks and less time than they’d like interacting with customers. Internal politics isn’t going away any time soon.

The absolute dominance of niche media

I still regularly hear from product managers that there isn’t enough content and educational resources out there. But traditional media in no way filling the gap, according to our respondents. Instead, Medium and Mind The Product grew even more in popularity, extending their utter domination of business magazines as sought after sources of best practices in product management. (We even threw our hat in the mix with the release of the Product Management Insider publication on Medium.)

There’s still a lot of room to grow for product management resources. More than one-third of respondents said they don’t subscribe to any industry newsletters, and more than two-thirds say they’ve never been to a product management conference. We expect to see those rapidly grow in popularity over the next year, if they follow current trends.

For more insights and best practices, remember to download the full 16-page report here and listen to my interview with The Everyday Innovator.

Nis Frome

Nis Frome is the co-founder of Alpha, the platform that enables management teams to make data-driven decisions about users, products, and new markets.